December 19, 2007

No devils in these pitches

Graeme Smith and others have blamed South Africa's tracks for the poor scores this season. They don't quite have a leg to stand on

Same old same old: it is a small bunch of batsmen, Kallis and Amla among them, who have done consistently well for South Africa© 319260

Batsmen and bowlers lose form and, occasionally teams underperform as an unit, with individuals being dragged down to the level of their out-of-touch team-mates. But rarely do whole countries lose form, a phenomenon which appears to have affected South Africa's batsmen. When the top 20 averages were published after last week's sixth round of the SuperSport Series, the last six places were occupied by men averaging in the 30s. At the other end of the table, only three averaged more than 50.

Graeme Smith made headlines for all the wrong reasons after his team had thrashed New Zealand by 358 runs in the first of two Tests at the Wanderers last month, by launching a no-holds-barred whine about the general state of the country's pitches. It was just after Jacques Kallis (186) and Hashim Amla (176 not out) had added 330 together to set up the win.

Domestically there have been some worryingly low scores this season, and on the face of it, without scratching below the surface provided by the scorecards, it would seem that Smith might have a point. But those with a penchant for the truth tell a different story.

"It wasn't a great pitch but it certainly wasn't an 80-all out pitch," moaned Cobras coach Shukri Conrad after his team had been skittled for 82 by the Dolphins at the Pietermaritzburg Oval. "How the hell does a first-class team get bowled out for 80?" he asked, rhetorically. "The senior players are not pulling their weight, and all the batsmen are just not showing the necessary application."

Other coaches are, understandably, far less forthright about the performances of the men under their tutelage and guidance. Like Smith, their attention is turned towards the surfaces they are playing upon. But the phrase about bad workmen blaming their tools comes to mind.

"The criticism is a bit unfounded. In terms of preparations, everything is pretty much as it always has been. Groundsmen take their duties seriously," said Chris Scott of the Wanderers, South Africa's groundsman of the year for the last two years. "The whole thing started with the Test series against New Zealand, and they [New Zealand] didn't have a good side, which would have nothing to do with preparations.

"If you look at the Centurion and the Johannesburg Test matches, they were almost identical. You had the same bowlers taking the wickets and the same batsmen scoring runs, and both matches finished in three and four days," Scott said.

The same batsmen are, indeed, scoring all the runs - in both international and domestic cricket. While Kallis and Amla dominated the Tests against New Zealand, with notable contributions in the one-dayers from Herschelle Gibbs and AB de Villiers, at domestic level the key contributors also number no more than a handful. Which is very bad news for South Africa on two fronts.

The first is the obvious lack of quality and depth at the level below the national team. The second is that two of the top five are about to become unavailable for South Africa and another two, Justin Ontong and Andrew Puttick, have been tested and found wanting at international level.

Boeta Dippenaar (674 runs at 51.84 this season) has signed a two-year contract to play for Leicestershire, which will rule him out of national contention, while Neil McKenzie, like Dippenaar in the best form of his life, has a generous offer from Somerset, which is screaming out for a signature. Yet another three batsmen ranked in the top 15, Jacques Rudolph, Martin van Jaarsveld and HD Ackerman have already committed their futures elsewhere.

Deluding themselves about the quality of pitches in the country might serve a short-term purpose for the country's coaches and their batsmen, but the truth may be exposed in the most dramatic and painful fashion if the established South Africa top-order players lose form or fitness.

Another groundsman who has been around for over two decades, Wilson Ngobese of Kingsmead in Durban, tries hard not get involved in the current debate. He has seen it all before. With a whimsical shrug of the shoulders, he offers the wisest words of anyone on the subject: "A pitch can never change the quality of a batsman or bowler. A bowler still needs to find his line if he comes across a green wicket to get his five wickets; a batsman needs to apply himself to score his hundred. I can't add anything extra."

Quite so.

Neil Manthorp is a South African broadcaster and journalist, and head of the MWP Sport agency

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Chris on December 23, 2007, 15:42 GMT

    I mostly agree with what Daryl Cullinan has siad in this report, South Africa are heavily dependant on runs from Jacques Kallis. Hashim Amla is not test class, scoring runs against a 3rd string New Zealand bowling attack have for some reason lifted his status. Graeme Smith is being found out at last for having an appaling technique and Herschelle Gibbs is struggling for consistency. South Africa should be doing all they can to for AB De Villiers as he is going to be the mainstay of their batting line up for the next decade, continually shifting him up and down the order is not helping him. I do find it slightly unfair to say Andrew Puttick is found wanting in the international arena, he has played one game! My South African team would be: Smith, Gibbs, Kallis, De Villiers, McKenzie, Prince, Boucher, Harris, Nel, Morkel and Steyn.

  • Lebo on December 21, 2007, 11:30 GMT

    Quiet honestly I sometimes wonder how come other players get dropped immediately they under-perform. Biff on the other hand has been under perfoming for almost 2 yrs now. Gibbs has his on and off, can never actually tell how he'll perform. then you got AB who I honestly feel could've made way for Neil McKenzie in the test arena. He is gradually however maturing with each game. I still wish for a scorecard whereby our top order made solid starts. a hundred from one of the openers then followed by a double hundred from Jakes and Hashim. 678/5. Gibbs 55, Smith 121, Hashim 127, Jakes 278*,Prince 54 and AB 32 off 23 balls. a 5-ver for Steyn, 3 from Harris, 1 Ntini, 1 Nel. I am allowed to dream can't I?

  • mahjut on December 19, 2007, 14:49 GMT

    If i can add a further comment on this section (the reason why i started my last reply):

    "Deluding themselves about the quality of pitches in the country might serve a short-term purpose for the country's coaches and their batsmen, but the truth may be exposed in the most dramatic and painful fashion if the established South Africa top-order players lose form or fitness."

    I don't think there is a huge difference in quality (Kallis aside) between the top 15 players. I think they're all between 30-40 international ave material. I don't think loss of form or fitness would be painful or dramatic - rather, i think, it would simply show that although there is some depth - it is not particularly high quality depth. I'm afraid that is how i see the current line-up anyway.

    Smith is as much miss as hit, as is De Villiers. Amla had a good series vs. NZ but was a case for dropping just prior. Gibbs is Gibbs. The only positive before NZ was Prince, who always represeted resistence.

  • mahjut on December 19, 2007, 14:31 GMT

    i agree that there are issues with the batting but there are issues too with this article.

    Puttick has played 1 ODI while Ontong has had 12 ODI innings (in 6 different positions ranging from 3 to 9) - 4 innings he came in at 7 or later (the time when wickets usually are tumbling. He has played only two tests - one in OZ, in very trying circumstances: the other against India, at #7 he outscored dipenaar and Rudolph didn't do that much better (well, he scored high in the first innings while ontong ran out of partners). Tried and tested???

    On the other hand. Rudolph, McKenzie, Van Jaarsveld and Dipenaar have truly been tried and found wanting. For each, there is a case for sympathy but Rudolph's performances deteriorated a LOT, Dipennar never really got going and van jaarsveld never faced a decent attack (SL probably being the best - and he only went above 50 with murali out).

    While Smith and de villiers should be continually fighting for their spots - Prince is solid.

  • Satish on December 18, 2007, 16:12 GMT

    I don't think the issue is with the lack of depth in batting in the domestic circuit.

    If you look at the South African batting line-up I think almost all except Kallis, Gibbs and maybe Prince are under-30 which means they have a good future ahead of them.

    And its not as if every country has a Kallis calibre batsman waiting in the wings. Some of them will take time to mature and get better.

    However, scoring runs on flat tracks and then blaming the pitches when the going gets tough is hypocrisy. In fact countries all over the cricketing world should be encouraged to produce difficult wickets either square-turners or garden-like green tops. That would be a real test far from the plonk-the-foot-down-and-hit surfaces. Batsmen are having it too easy on lifeless tracks.

  • Srikanth on December 18, 2007, 15:56 GMT

    The Proteas when on song with the openers blazing can be an extremely strong force to reckon with. But their middle order and tail is weak. Boasting of all rounders the line up is frail and performs only when the top order provides a blazing start. They certainly lack batting depth as was evident in the T20 when they were a bundle of nerves after losing the first 3 wkts. 2 run outs and poor shot selection under pressure, they surely lack depth.

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